In Andy Muschietti’s sturdy but superficial, journeyman remake of It, Bill Skarsgard’s portrayal of the title role is a too-easy thesis of the film’s successes and flaws. On one hand, when Tim Curry stepped into the fangs and red hair in 1990, he was a memorably polychromatic experience: sad, otherworldly, ethereal, campy, and bizarre. Skarsgaard only hits – or is only allowed to aim for – unadulterated fright. On the other hand, his more calculated performance less prone to tangents and instabilities capably invokes the gloomy glint of terror that animates this new film, one-note in its construction but perfectly capable of hitting the note. Curry was the standout in that earlier, now-epochal television film – it jump-started an insufferable trend of Stephen King TV mini-series that continues to this day – but the unwieldly, tone-deaf drudgery of that production was an unstable mess of arbitrarily-laid-out scenes lacking any semblance of cohesion or logic. (Nor was it, incidentally, meaningful with its mess). Intersecting feelings and emotions could be both fascinatingly tiring and pointlessly, scene-paddingly draining.
Comparatively, this new film is a little bit of a bludgeon, as evidenced in the early goings when we are subjected to scene after scene of the childhood protagonists at the receiving end of either comically cruel beatings from the local high school bullies or visions of terror from Pennywise the Clown, a corporeal form of a demon that transcends the rules of space and time and can manifest as whichever fear best tingles the spine of a current chosen victim. The potential victims this time out, although we all know they’ll be around for the set-27-years-later part two, are a collection of seven pre-teens lead by Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), most of whom are seemingly in love with outcast Beverlee (Sophia Lillis) who live in the fictional Derry, Maine in 1989. After Bill’s brother Georgie is murdered by Pennywise in the film’s opening scene – a mini-movie of elegant, astonishingly cruel effectiveness – they all slowly realize that current events are connected with much older happenings in Derry.
Beneath all the seemingly apocryphal stories they hear lies a town secret that isn’t, or rather, the screenplay by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunga, and Gary Dauberman is less than totally committed to sketching out the town of Derry as anything other than mere backdrop. It’s so busy booking through a kinetic roller-coaster of a blockbuster horror film that, by the end, is an equally exhausting affair to the 1990 mini-series, different though the catalysts for this exhaustion may be. The same nondescript quality to the film’s location also hobbles any consideration of the film’s parents, although in this case the laziness or superficiality could at least be (incorrectly but spiritedly) read as a reflection of King’s concern for the sins of absent parents being foisted upon children. (Even if this means that It borrows from King in resorting to primarily caricatured morsels of adult life rather than fuller portraits). While more aware of childhood longings, desires, and needs, It also wheezes under the weight of its many characters and the head-strong rush of scare-sequences which jockey for pole position in a film that routinely tries to wow us with its twitchy rhythms and stop-start effects and crimson presences rather than chill us or disarticulate normality with a more inspired sense of absence and negative space. It is entirely incapable, or unwilling, to explore the primordial potency of the unknown and, more importantly, the un-shown.
The film is a spectacle, essentially, a maximalist frenzy of motion and visual sparkle and darting sound and streaks of red. Although the film spares us the full display of human entrails it elsewhere teases, it does not interpellate or interpret any other forms of interiority either. It hardly has time to coax out the obvious psychological trauma at the heart of the tale, as well as the question of memory and the specter of the past which only, presumably, wax in meaning in light of the second-act still-to-come. There, presumably unhinged from the necessity of set-up, Muschietti might be liberated to accomplish more than lionize his well-mounted but middle-of-the-road style. Even as a question of pure horror, the film never again surpasses – or even matches – its slowest, steadiest build-up: its visualization of King’s famous prelude where young brother Georgie is killed. If nothing else, Muschietti renders himself a more than capable visualist with a knack for oblique angles and glints of genuine terror when he isn’t busy careening through plot and jostling between various personified, personalized nightmares that nonetheless have the mettle of off-the-shelf horror.
King’s incredibly lugubrious, hyperbolically hallucinogenic book, less a spine-tingling nightmare than a too-obviously coked-out fugue state, is a total misfit, an image of space, place, and mind that reaches for the stars and ends up in the murk. But it does reach, whereas It the film turns a constant rush toward demonic intervention into a sort of empty resting state. In other words, there’s quite a bit of action, but there’s precious little turbulence this time out. It devotes too much time to King’s brand of the overtly demonic, and to incredibly slick mountings of hellish and subterranean caves, and not nearly enough to the equally freakish and even more underground unknowns of adolescent emotions and desires or the even more damnable and wretched horrors of everyday life. (And it completely avoids King’s awareness of the bucolic pleasures of yesteryear). Muschietti’s film boasts a surfeit of clutter, even more clatter, and precious little in the way of genuine existential pandemonium. This film is far too busy and eager to please to actually agitate, perturb, or genuinely worry beyond a sort of mildly-alleviated present-tense tension. It’s terrors feel like carnival-barked commands or even compulsory obligations – Cower! Run! – rather than questions that it genuinely meditates on.